6 Things Every Catholic Should Know About “Just War” Doctrine

Lorenzoclick, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0 / - François -, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

With escalating conflicts around the world, particularly in Syria, many Catholics are wondering what guidance the Church gives in evaluating these situations.

Here’s what every Catholic needs to know about the Church’s teachings on war and peace:

1) “A war of aggression is intrinsically immoral.”

Any war for the purpose of expansion, domination, or any other reason other than defense is immoral, regardless of how it is fought. (CSDC 500)

2) The moral law remains in force during war

Sometimes people will say that “anything goes” in war, that you can do anything to win. But that is not true. The same moral law that exists during times of peace exists during times of war.

For example, the normal prohibition against the voluntary and direct killing of innocent people is just as true during a time of war as it is during a time of peace. (CCC 2312)

3) There are strict conditions for justifiably engaging in war

“The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

– there must be serious prospects of success;

– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.” (CCC 2309)

4) “Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.”

This is related to number two. Just because you are engaging in war, it doesn’t mean anything goes. Non-combatants must be protected. Wounded soldiers, prisoners, and other soldiers who pose little or no threat should also be treated humanely. (CCC 2313)

5) The application of these principles is a prudential judgement

The principles themselves are not open for dispute. But the determination of whether a particular situation meets these requirements for a just war is a matter of prudential judgement. (CCC 2309) Thus, faithful Catholics may sometimes legitimately disagree on whether a particular act of war is just or not.

6) Some people may be called to radical non-violence

“Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.” (CCC 2306)

You can read more about the Church’s teaching regarding war and peace in the Catechism and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

[See also: “Forgive Them”: Powerful Last Words of Christian Girl Burned Alive by ISIS]

[See also: Roman Exorcist on ISIS: Christians Must “Fight the Beast Spiritually”]